God’s Iron Man
How much value do we place on older saints? Do we see the value that years of experience bring to an assembly? When does the time come for an older saint to “retire” from their life’s work? These are intensely personal questions which we hope to examine in some detail by looking at the life of Barzillai, God’s Iron Man.
The name Barzillai either means, “Son of Contempt,” “Man of Iron,” or “My Iron.” If we take the two main meanings together we get the picture of a godly man of strength who is not afraid to “… despise the shame.” To identify with David during this time of turmoil was to associate oneself with a rejected King. Absalom had taken the throne by force and David, on the run, had passed over the Jordan and made the approximately 10-mile journey to Mahanaim. Also, the narrative states that, just as David comes to Mahanaim, Absalom is right behind, passing over the Jordan, and all the men of Israel are with him (2Sam 17:24). The danger was real and imminent. We could well understand a reluctance to get involved in another’s troubles, when we consider that he was in his eightieth year. For Barzillai, such a course of action would be completely out of character. He and his friends saw an obvious need; the people were “hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness” (2Sam 17:29), and Barzillai was “a very great man” (19:32). He had the wherewithal to respond to the situation. The enthusiastic greeting the exiled King receives on the other side of the Jordan is heartwarming. Barzillai puts on a feast worthy of a King. How unlike Nabal as he sets before the King beds for their weariness, and then cooking pots and serving bowls from which to eat and drink. His provision literally overflows, as he brings out wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans and lentils, honey and butter, sheep and goats, and cheese for David. There is no hesitation to be associated with the rejected David. The parallels are obvious. “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt 25:40).
David never forgot the generosity of Barzillai. There would be a day when David would pass back over the Jordan to take that which was rightfully his. In the intervening days, however, there was the great slaughter – twenty thousand men dead – in the Battle of the Woods of Ephraim. There was betrayal and there was the tragedy of a lost son. The lament, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” is one of the most poignant cries in Scripture. As David crosses back over the Jordan, he is met by three men who now, for good or for ill, must face the consequences of their actions. David, in his dealings with these three men, shows grace, mercy, and peace. Shimei, against the counsel of Abishai, has his life spared. Mephibosheth, despite the treacherous slander of Ziba, has half his lands returned. One wonders if years later Solomon’s wisdom, displayed in the proposed division of the baby, wasn’t inspired by this event in the life of his father. No doubt David rewarded Mephibosheth for his loyalty by the Jordan River that day.
Of the three men who approached the King, it is Barzillai who would most look forward to the reunion. The other two men had much to keep them awake during the quiet hours of the night as they anticipated possible reactions from the King. Barzillai had no such qualms. He had remembered the King in his rejection and now approached his returning monarch to escort him across the River Jordan with joyful anticipation. He who had fed the King would now, in return, be fed by the King, but Barzillai did have a concern. How was he to graciously refuse the generosity of the King without causing offense? From all outward appearances Barzillai “had it made.” It was time for him to retire to Jerusalem, eat at the King’s table, put his feet up, and relax. At 80 years old, who would deny him this reward? No doubt those around would look at the protests of Barzillai to the King’s offer as exactly why he should go with the King. Perhaps they would think that he was too old to be of any use back in Rogelim. Barzillai recognized his reduced ability, but there was still work to be done. There is a humility and dignity associated with his protests to the King. His heart was in the highlands east of the Jordan among the fullers, tending to sheep. His great desire was to die in his own city, and be buried by the graves of his father and mother. He would rather another take the reward; he would just continue with the work. How much more would be done for God if our attitude was like that of Barzillai – let another take the credit – just let me do the work.
There are two things that are emphasized about Barzillai. He was a “…very great man,” and it also needs to be emphasized that the same verse, notes he was a “…very aged man” (2Sam 19:32). The two are given equal weight, and we would suggest that they complement each other. It takes a very great man to step into a work more appropriate for a very aged man. Nevertheless while great, aged, iron men of God will see a rising generation and put into their hands a work that they themselves recognize they are no longer able to do, we should never underestimate the value of these men in our assemblies. Nor should we push retirement on them because we think we can do better. We need great, aged people of God in our assemblies. The battle rages on; it is not the time for them to retire.